Musings on Our Life Stories

Cropped image of woman's hand with pen writing down notes
Cropped image of woman's hand with pen writing down notes

Thankfully, the Mayans were wrong and as we gracefully approach 2013, we will face many new beginnings to talk and write about. In addition, holiday time is a natural time to reflect on our past and what brought us to where we are now. Sometimes holiday gatherings are a good time to exchange and share stories with friends and family. Recently, I have been thinking about how you can know someone for so many years and still be learning about them. This year, I sent Eva (as my mother chooses to be called) a few of those no-flame battery operated candles available at such places like Pottery Barn. They are great because they can be set on a timer to illuminate and shut off at a particular time each day.

When Eva phoned to thank me for the parcel, she shared the story of her childhood growing up in Vienna and how Christmas trees held real dripping candles on their branches. "We were able to do that back then because the trees were cut the day before Christmas and still damp, so fires did not happen from the dripping wax. We cannot do that anymore because the trees are already dry before getting into the house."

What amazes me is that I have known my mother for an undisclosed amount of time, but I had only recently learned this factoid from her childhood. I thought the only place she saw Christmas trees during her childhood was on the streets or inside the non-Jewish neighbors' homes. She was not a Holocaust survivor, but my father was, and I do have vague memories of hearing her asking for a tree and him saying, "over my dead body, absolutely not." As a matter of fact, Friday (December 21st) was the 23rd anniversary of my father's death, and I just wrote him a long letter about this.

In the end, we never had a Christmas tree, although each Christmas Eve, my parents would drive me in Dad's pink impala around the neighborhood to witness all the beautifully decorated homes. My father spoke about all the bulbs, which burn out and break and how each year, the customers in the store he managed in Brooklyn, L.H. Martin stores, would exchange bad bulbs for good ones. He had a love/hate relationship with the holidays, as I always had. I do remember him bringing home new Hanukkah candles each year and we lit one a night for eight nights on a menorah in our bay window.

Hearing my mother's recollection from her own childhood prompted me reflect on an important aspect of memoir writing: writing about memories. Why is it that we remember some things and not others? I do not think there is a simple answer to this question. It is complex and probably more complex and involved than the nature of this blog.

My sense is that what we remember is unconscious and what remains in our memory banks is also a mystery, as even two people sharing the same incident will remember it differently.

A recent article in Poets & Writers magazine (Jan/Feb 2013) addressed a similar subject in the article, "The Secrets of Stories," by Frank Bures. The author references psychologist Don McAdams, who claims that not only do memories serve as ways to amuse friends, but they are all the building blocks of what is known as our "life story." In other words, our memories are our interpretation of how we became who we are. McAdams claims that the ability to see our life story is at the heart of our identity and who we are. He believes that our story begins in our memory banks around the age of 2, which in my opinion seems quite early.

Bures makes some salient points about the art of storytelling and why we do it. He claims that we tell stories to understand the causes connected with situations and people, which helps us decide what we need, want and/or what to avoid in the future. If we stop to think about it, we practice the act of causality all the time as we try to figure out why people do things the way they do. We all seem to enjoy gossiping, speculating, musing and attempting to comprehend the human condition.

Understanding other people's lives can help us understand our own, which is why memoirs have been the rage. Bures deftly points out, "Knowing how causalities hold our past together doesn't mean we can always see what those causalities are." In the end, he says, "At each of life's crossroads, what you believe deep down determines which way you turn." Thus, he says, we should all be mindful of each word we write, the stories we believe in and love and the parts of the stories we choose to tell. It is the stories we tell, which will be left behind as our legacy, and surely we would all want that to be in a truthful and poignant light.